Shi'i Doctrine, Mu'tazili

al-Sharif al-Murtada and Imami Discourse

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Hussein Ali Abdulsater
  • Edinburgh, Scotland: 
    Edinburgh University Press
    , July
     256 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Shiʿi Doctrine, Muʿtazili Theology is based on Hussein Ali Abdulsater’s 2013 doctoral dissertation at Yale University. Abdulsater provides us with a rigorous, detailed account of aspects of the theological enterprise of al-Sharīf al-Murtaḍā (d. 1044), the famous Shiʿi theologian, littérateur, jurist, and politician of Buyid Baghdad. This is the first monograph—indeed, to the best of my knowledge, the first of any kind of scholarly piece in the European languages—devoted to al-Murtaḍā’s theology since Wilfred Madelung’s seminal article “Imamism and Muʿtazilite Theology,” published forty-seven years ago. Al-Murtaḍā’s oeuvre, in comparison to his master’s, Shaykh al-Mufīd’s (d. 1022), is more systematic and conclusive in tackling theological debates. Indeed al-Murtaḍā laid the foundation for the short-lived Muʿtazilite style Shiʿi kalām, superseded by Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī’s (d. 1067) philosophical theology two centuries later. Considering al-Murtaḍā’s pivotal role in the development of Shīʿī thought, one would expect to see such a monograph much sooner.

Al-Murtaḍā left a splendid corpus of writing in various disciplines, however his contribution to Shiʿi theology is distinctive because he was the first to systematically deal with theological themes and debates exhaustively in a monograph (Dhakhīra fī ʿilm al-kalām). Abdulsater provides the reader with a substantiated treatment of the main theological concepts, themes, arguments, and conclusions in al-Murtaḍā’s work. His book includes an introduction, six chapters, and a conclusion. The first chapter deals with the life and works of al-Murtaḍā. Three following chapters are devoted to the study of the foundational concepts of al-Murtaḍā’s theology, including God and the world, moral theory and justice, and humans and religious experience. The last chapters on imamat and prophethood, apart from their abstract investigation of these concepts, contains an interesting analysis of al-Murataḍā’s interpretation of the events of the formative period of Islam.

The author successfully provides a well-organized map of al-Murtaḍā’s theological thought, deploying his vast magna opera, fulfilling a demanding task. In every chapter, Abdulsater follows an elaborate plan to present the content of his analysis. He starts with the theoretical model, and then moves to the concepts at work, then arguments, and at last conclusions. His approach renders the book a smooth read.

Following Martin J. McDermott’s argument in The Theology of Al-Shaikh al-Mufīd (Librairie orientale, 1978), Abdulsater accurately points out that in style and theological method alike, al-Murtaḍā adhered to Baṣran Muʿtazilism while attempting to articulate a distinctive Shiʿi doctrinal viewpoint. Abdulsater seeks to contextualize this argument by drawing the reader’s attention to the convergences and divergences of al-Murtaḍā’s idea from the Muʿtazili thinkers in general and Qāḍī ʿAbd al-Jabbār (d. 1024) in particular. ʿAbd al-Jabbār serves as an instrumental figure in this regard since al-Murtaḍā wrote his seminal work al-Shāfī fī al-imāma in response to ʿAbd al-Jabbār’s al-Mughnī.  

Moreover, a remarkable aspect of this book—and an interested reader in intellectual history wishes for more—is the section in which the author discusses al-Murtaḍā’s ideas in relation to other theologians. This contextualization helps the book to be more than a description of a single theologian’s thought.

Unfortunately, if one does not read the concluding chapter of the book, one might lose most of the author’s argument that must have been outlined throughout the book. The last chapter offers a lucid picture to identify the extent to which al-Murtaḍā adheres to the teachings of al-Mufīd and concurs with his successor, al-Ṭūsī, in his relation to Muʿtazili theology. Abdulsater’s contention is in line with the old idea that Shiʿi theologians in the Baghdad period poured “old Imami doctrines into new Muʿtazili theology” (216). From this point of view, Abdulsater’s work is in line with Madelung’s and McDermott’s contention that Shiʿi thinkers of the 10th century adopted Muʿtazili theology as a means of articulating their own respective theology. Edinburgh University Press should be lauded for their clean copy-editing of a book containing numerous diacritics.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Majid Montazer Mahdi is a doctoral student in Arab and Islamic studies at the University of Exeter.

Date of Review: 
December 4, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Hussein Ali Abdulsater is assistant professor of Arabic Culture and Islamic Studies at Department of Classics, University of Notre Dame.


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